We left the Dan Panorama hotel after a restful first night in Jerusalem and drove back up to Mount Scopus, which we had traversed the night before on our entry into Jerusalem. From the margins of the Hebrew University’s campus we glimpsed much of the historic portions of Jerusalem. For a slightly better view, we moved south to the Mount of Olives, directly above the extensive Jewish cemetery, which descended from the newer tombs at the top of the slope all the way to ones that were thousands of years old on the Kidron Valley floor.
During our observation, we noticed a beautifully dressed young girl of about 8 or 9 who was being filmed reciting poetry in a loud voice. “School project, maybe?” we wondered. But as we were waiting on a few of our crew to finish their short camel ride facilitated by a local vendor, a confrontation erupted. It quickly became clear that something more was going on as Michi, our guide, stepped in to try and defuse the situation. The young girl’s father (or perhaps uncle) quickly turned on him, and Michi — someone I wouldn’t want to mess with — firmly encouraged the man to take his group elsewhere. It simmered down finally, and Michi began to share what happened. Apparently this young Arab girl was being recorded making a speech (which was so offensive he wouldn’t translate it) telling the Jews to leave Jerusalem and Israel. While most of the Israelis who were there ignored it, but one asked them to please stop disturbing everyone. When he was rounded on by the family member, that’s when Michi stepped in. The religious and ethnic differences — one of the things that makes Jerusalem so beautiful in my eyes — clearly make for a flammable situation that could break out into a full conflagration with a small spark. I think we all knew this, but to have it so forcefully exposed on our first morning was unexpected.
As we walked down the Palm Sunday road from the top of the Mount of Olives into the valley, we spent some time talking about burial rituals, even looking in at a tomb from the time of Christ across the street from the cemetery. We also stopped at the church of Dominus Flavit, where Christ wept over Jerusalem for not knowing the things that made for peace.
In the valley still today are beautiful groves of olive trees, some of which are 1500 years old or more. We gained acceptance to a private grove, and spent some time in prayer and meditation in the garden of Gethsemane, which simply means “olive oil press.” My colleague Jessica LaGrone sketched simply and elegantly the shape of obedience which Christ inhabited in that garden, and invited us to live in that pattern also.
We continued on to the Church of All Nations or Basilica of Christ’s Agony. In the church, a group (it sounded like from Eastern Europe) were in the area around the altar, celebrating Mass. It was a beautiful thing to watch them standing around the altar as they prayed, and the priest do the same thing I have done countless times: lead the prayer, hold the bread, raise the cup. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t even figure out whether or not the prayer was in Polish — we could simply follow along, respond at the appropriate times, and be in prayer together. Church of All Nations indeed.
After leaving those fellow Christians to celebrate the Eucharist in peace, we boarded our bus — the redoubtable Toby always managed to find a safe place for us to board, even on the busy streets — and drove up to the edge of the Old City. We ducked inside the gate and after only a few blocks we found ourselves at St Anne’s church and the Pools of Bethesda. The impressive pools were peaceful — it was easy to see why people encountered healing there for themselves and their loved ones. But the Crusader church of St Anne was an unexpected treat. Andrew Thompson, another colleague and a worship leader at Clear Lake UMC, led us all in singing in that space, and the sound filled the basilica with such a richness and depth that I couldn’t believe it. We spent some time singing hymns and choruses and then prayed some more. Finally, we sang the Doxology, and went on our way with the echoes ringing on the stones still.
After such a full morning, our leaders decided it was time for a break, so we headed to do some shopping. The Nisan brothers own the largest olive wood factory in Bethlehem, and during a period of intense violence in the West Bank, they opened a store in Jerusalem as well, which is where we spent some time. We bought some souvenirs and gifts, stoles for worship, and I found a beautiful handpainted icon of the Nativity. One of the owners, a Syriac Christian, recited the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic, which is the Hebrew dialect Jesus and the disciples would have spoken. We ate some pizza while shopping (yes, pizza!) and then departed with our bags heavier and wallets lighter.
The southern tip of the Old City is where supposedly the Upper Room is located. The current room was built during the Crusader era, which began in 1099 and therefore clearly was not what was present when the disciples gathered there…but that’s okay. We also visited the church of St Peter in Gallicantu, which was where Caiaphas’ house was likely located, just above Gethsemane. We read the story of Peter’s denial (memorialized by the rooster atop the dome’s cross) and then went inside to see both the unique church built into the rock face and the cistern which was likely used as a holding cell for prisoners (was Jesus one of them?). Then it was time for “a coffee in, coffee out,” as Michi said: washroom and cafe stop at Dormition Abbey, right around the corner. While everyone else was drinking their hot chocolate, Mark Welshimer and I visited the church itself, which had a series of beautiful altars (including one from Côte d’Ivoire) and a crypt below that commemorated the site where Mary fell asleep into eternal rest. Then we again boarded the bus for the short trip back to the hotel.
Wifi was quite spendy at our hotel, so we walked around the corner to Jerusalem’s YMCA which had a 150-foot campanile that towered above its huge complex. The lobby was quite nice, and a good place to sit and borrow the free internet. I didn’t get much chance to check email in Jerusalem at all, though some chose to, but I wanted to make sure I wrote here. In the meantime, others were skyping with family members or posting to facebook. We all went back for our evening routine: a group meeting for about 30 or 45 minutes to reflect on the day and prepare for tomorrow, then dinner. We were free each evening, so about 10 of us this night gathered to play Bananagrams, Taboo, and just spend some time relaxing together.
Though we started the day in religious conflict, that’s not the only story here. There are plenty who believe and practice their religion — Jews, Christians, Muslims — peacefully. And in the many places of prayer today, I spent time with God thinking about all the rough edges in the world — here, back home, in myself. I can’t say everything was solved, but I find myself returning to the words of the hymn: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”